Frocks for the memory

Frocktober Day 1. Still-life on a queen-size bed.

I’ve been a little more preoccupied than usual with fashion recently. Unusual, as anyone who knows me would attest. I’m not terribly fond of it as a rule.

I don’t mind it on other people (particularly my friend Kate, whom I dedicate this post to because, even after 25 years of friendship, her rabid enthusiasm for matters sartorial still brings on a jittery self-consciousness whenever we meet).

On the whole, I find clothes shopping tedious beyond belief, and trying to navigate an entire floor of clothes at Myer or DJs a matter of eye-glazing horror.

My preoccupation has been brought about by the commencement last week of Frocktober, a noble venture I’m taking part in to raise funds for the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation. The basic tenet is a commitment to wear a dress for the whole of October (not the same dress, preferably, unless it’s drip-dry, I suppose) or for as many days as humanly possible, so that people dear of heart and deep of pocket will sponsor my endeavours. And of course, in this golden age of communication, this also means regular posts of each day’s attire, accompanied by (under Kate’s stern instructions) styling details for each outfit. As a sub-editor, this is my idea of publishing hell: fashion captioning, which I regard as only slightly less odious than homewares captioning (or ‘homewears’, if you subscribe to the Country Road world view).

Thinking about what to wear. Every. Single. Day.

True, my horror pales into insignificance when compared to the horrors that a few squillion dollars’ worth of research into this heinous disease could prevent or cure, so it seemed like the only reasonable thing to do under the circumstances.

Frocktober Day 4. Just take the picture, already.

But for others whose frocky folderols I’ve been enjoying on Instagram – #frocktober – it has patently (literally so, judging by the footwear, mine included) been an opportunity to embrace the act of frocking up and posting photos of themselves. So much gay abandon – with such fab and quirky results – you should go and have a look. I’m there, too, lurking uncomfortably (in shadow, mostly) amid all this ebullient posing.

I blame it on my father. I’ve been thinking about him a lot, too, recently. Since last Father’s Day, in fact, when I started writing this post and got distracted, and then it was too late.

Sorry Dad.

“Father’s Day, Schmather’s Day,” he would have said, though, had he been around.

He had little patience for sentimental twaddle. When my then-de facto of eight years and I went over to Dad’s flat to respectfully ask him if he minded if we got married, he told us he couldn’t give a f—k what we did: “What are you asking me for? You’ve been living together for years – do what you bloody well like.”

Ten days later (wedding outfit bought in Hampstead in a single afternoon – heaven), on a beautifully British, blinking-blue June day, the families of both sides of this even-now-still-slightly-puzzling union stood in ragged lines, having our photos taken in front of the immoderately picturesque Bedford Arms pub in Chenies, Buckinghamshire. “Hurry up and take the bloody pictures – they’ve opened the champagne,” growled David Feldman, patting his jacket pockets to find his cigarettes and lighter.

As my oldest friend’s father, Martin – himself an irascible sod – rightly said after Dad’s dismal and hastily prepared funeral, a little more than a month after that sun-drenched, champagne-soaked wedding, “He was a miserable bastard, but we loved him anyway.”

I’m not sure I ever really knew my father – typically peripheral in a 1950s and 60s childhood. Mum did – she knew him well enough to know she didn’t like him enough to live with him, but enough for them to remain friends of sorts. The sort that gets together at Christmas and family Sundays, or for an occasional holiday; the sort that meant neither of them really settled with other partners; the sort to be sitting with him when he died.

He was the very archetype of a grumpy old man, although I suspect he was a fairly grumpy young man, too. One of a generation of men who’d been to war (although he didn’t actually fight anyone; he was in some sort of radio communications unit). Went to Burma and sat on a mule – that much I know – there’s a picture somewhere.

He learnt to drive then, too. Never took a driving test. A diabolical driver.

David Feldman taking the original selfie, circa 1980s

An artist of some talent, a lover of opera, ballet, jazz – Sarah, Ella, Lena; and devotee of films – Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, Robert Altman. He’d disappear after dinner into a large room at the back of our childhood home, dubbed, unsurprisingly, ‘the big room’, chuck on something loud on the Bang & Olufsen and get stuck into charcoal drawing and oil painting (horses and ballet dancers copied from coffee table books) or glass engraving. Or sculpting, among other things, a chess set of clay circus animals and clowns. I still have a couple of elephant Queens and a lion King, complete with tooth-pick crowns, and the wine glass he etched for my 21st birthday, on my shelf at home.

Lumbered in a business, as the eldest, responsible, son, by his long-widowed mother, Grandma Ruby (a tiny, red-haired misery, who all her life had crammed her feet into shoes so tiny they looked like a geisha’s).

Stuck in the rag trade for his entire working life, reluctantly running women’s clothes shops (with the aid of a handy, and regularly utilised, bottle of Scotch tucked on a shelf in his cluttery, schmuttery Bayswater back office). In Queensway, there was young and trendy Belle Boutique (this was the Sixties, remember, young people – we hadn’t heard of lower-case brand names back then – or irony), a few doors down from the ice rink; and the more matronly Lucille, at the Westbourne Grove end, opposite the once-grand Whiteleys, London’s first department store. Before Bayswater, Muswell Hill had been where it all started, at Ruby Feldman’s original emporium, the doughty Becky Field Fashions (I kid you not).

Still life with ballet dancer and David Feldman, a man of many talents and interesting socks.

He would have rather have been living the dream of owning a stereo (pronounced ‘steereo’) shop called The Recorderie in Stanmore, Middlesex, the then semi-rural suburb where we lived. Or living in Paris with his imaginary girlfriend, Sally Smith.

Dad’s Thursday afternoons were spent buying stock. Schlapping around the West End’s schmutter district (the North-London-Jewish patois for the Yiddish word schmatte – rag) around Great Portland Street, sifting through the latest ‘cabbage’ at wholesalers. Cabbage was (still is?) the term for the excess stock that manufacturers made by squeezing a few more garments out of a designer’s fabric order and then selling on cheap. One wag of a gown merchant even traded under the brand name Kay Barge, as I recall.

Occasionally, Dad would ease into a Thursday afternoon by meeting his younger brother, Gerry, for a dozen oysters or a Dover sole and a glass of champagne at Wheelers. Gerry was a disgracefully rude, generous, cigar-toking, fat-bellied, pencil-moustachioed, mascara-tinted-sideboarded spiv of an uncle – the very best kind, in fact.

I would drive with Dad ‘up to town’ in one of his string of auto lemons – a Citroën DS, a Bond Equipe, a Mark II Jag – to work during the school holidays or as a Saturday girl, where we’d spend the morning listening to Kenny Everett on newly minted Capital Radio 194. We’d wear pincushions sewn onto elastic straps around our wrists, all the better to pin up a hem, or replace an outfit on the mannequins in the windows. Dad did a lot of his own window-dressing and I loved helping him, both of us in our socks to keep the felt lining on the window floor clean. Unclicking those metal keyhole arm locks – lift, twist, pull – to free the sleeves first.

Mrs Hildebrand was one of the sales women (Dad did a bit of selling too, and could lay it on with a trowel if he felt like it, which was virtually never). Mrs Hildebrand schmoozed the ladies, telling them how “sweetly pretty” they looked; she seemed about 100 years old (which was probably only 50 in Jewish years back then). Zoë Papadopoulos was another retail elder – tiny and crazy-haired, with smudgy black eyeliner – whose fail-safe sales technique seemed to involve making customers feel sorry for her.

Frocktober Day 2. ‘Dressing Sydney’, Sydney Jewish Museum. Never mind the quality, feel the width…

Mrs H and Mrs P came teetering along the catwalk of my memory after a visit last week to Sydney Jewish Museum. My mother and I were idling away some time there before an appointment with her oncologist nearby. There’s an exhibition on at the moment, Dressing Sydney, tracing the legacy of Jewish immigrants in the city’s fashion industry. It’s a modest little testament, curated rather irritatingly in alphabetical, rather than chronological, order, but there’s a commonality in those stories and my childhood that added fortuitous grist to my writing mill.

That, and my father’s abiding influence on my aversion to clothes and the shopping thereof. Gay Saturday morning expeditions to Miss Selfridge, Kensington Market and (the most treasured) Biba in Kensington Church Street – whose sales girls, thrillingly skinny, wore black lipstick and nail varnish – were invariably overshadowed by the anticipation of Dad’s response when I returned home. There can be nothing more crushing to the spirit of a budding fashionista than the words: “I could have got it for you wholesale.”

Frocktober runs for three more weeks. Follow me – at your peril – @salfeldman on Instagram, and should you (if you haven’t already) care to sponsor my mildly modish journey for an important cause, head to my link here and give like you’ve never given before.

Or you can just read about it here. Next instalment: my life as a mannequin painter.